New Image of the Sun Is Unlike Anything Seen Before

A section of the mosaic image captured by ESA's Solar Orbiter.  An image of Earth, to scale, was added at top right.

A section of the mosaic image captured by ESA’s Solar Orbiter. An image of Earth, to scale, was added at top right.
Picture: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI team; Data processing: E. Kraaikamp (ROB)

A mosaic image packed with 83 million pixels is providing an unprecedented view of the Sun and its tumultuous outer atmosphere.

It took Solar Orbiter around four hours to capture all 25 images that comprised the mosaicwhich shows the Sun we March 7, 2022. At the time, the probe was 46 million miles (75 million kilometers) away from the Sun, placing it roughly halfway between earth and the staraccording to an ESA press release. Launched in February 2020, Solar Orbiter is performing a series of eccentric solar orbits as it gets increasingly closer to our host star.

The 25 frames, captured by the probe’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI), offer an unprecedented view of the Sun. EUI captured the image at a wavelength of 17 nanometers, the extreme ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum. ESA says it’s the highest resolution image ever taken of the Sun’s full disc and corona, or upper atmosphere.

The mosaic image, showing Sun's entire disc.

The mosaic image, showing Sun’s entire disc.
Picture: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI team; Data processing: E. Kraaikamp (ROB)

High resolution, indeed. The stunning mosaic image consists of a 9,148 by 9,112 pixel grid, which ESA says is 10 times better than a 4K television. That amounts to a jaw-dropping 83 million pixels. ESA has provided an interactive graphics that allows you to move across the scene, and you can zoom in and out to take in some of the finer details. A high-res image, which I’m already using as my desktop wallpaper, can be found here.

At both the top right and bottom left, eerie dark filaments can be seen. These filaments can generate powerful eruptions, in which massive amounts of coronal gas get tossed into space. These blasts, if directed toward Earth, sometimes creates solar storms in the vicinity of our atmosphere.

Another Solar Orbiter instrument, Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE), is also providing meaningful data. SPICE peers deeper into the Sun, at a lower layer known as the chromosphere, which it does by scanning different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light produced by different atoms.

Views of the Sun as seen by Solar Orbiter’s Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE) instrument.
gif: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/SPICE team; Data processing: G. Pelouze (IAS)

In a newly released SPICE gifpurple regions correspond to hydrogen gas at temperatures reaching 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit (10,000 degrees Celsius), green to oxygen at 576,000 degrees F (320,000 degrees C), and yellow to neon at 1.13 million degrees F (630,000 degrees C).

A big benefit of SPICE is that it’s allowing scientists to connect explosions on the surface to these deeper layers and to investigate an odd observation in which the Sun’s surface, at around 9,000 degrees F (5,000 degrees C) is actually cooler than the surrounding corona, which can reach 1.8 million degrees F (1 million degrees C).

Excitingly, Solar Orbiter is now days away from making its first close pass of the Sunwhich will happen on March 26, 2022. All 10 of the probe’s instruments will be active at the time, as ESA scientists try to squeeze as much data from the flyby as possible. Solar Orbiter is now in an orbit that takes it closer to the Sun than Mercury. The probe will get progressively nearer over the next several years, while also gradually raising its orientation, which will allow for our first glimpse of the Sun’s polar regions.

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